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Vape pens: The highs and lows of weed vaporizers

Read this before buying a weed vaporizer.

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Just like beach bodies, weed vapes come in all different shapes and sizes.

Aaron Robinson/CNET

Warning: This story discusses mild-altering substances and technology used to consume them. These substances are legal in some places but not in others. You shouldn't do things that are illegal -- nothing here endorses illegal drug use.

In the three years since "vape" was voted word of the year, it's turned into a synonym for marijuana vaporizers, as well as e-cigarettes. That's thanks to a growing market of portable devices that make consuming marijuana as easily accessible and fashionably demure as checking the time on a phone. 

Cannabis laws are nuanced and complicated, so more on that later. But if you are in a state where it's legal to buy and consume marijuana, reefer, broccoli, the devil's lettuce -- whatever you call it -- then read on. Like diesel cars and standard gasoline cars, e-cigarettes and vape pens are far from the same. 

What's a marijuana vaporizer?

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A Volcano is a popular type of desktop vaporizer.

Aaron Robinson/CNET

A vaporizer is a device that heats up marijuana (either in dry herb or concentrate form) enough to transmit its active ingredients (THC) without any burning. High-quality devices deliver vapor that accentuates the flower's natural aroma. 

Though they come in all shapes and sizes, there are mainly two type of vaporizers: desktop vapes and portable vapes.

Desktop vaporizer

A desktop vaporizer is a device that's meant to stay in one place (not for travel). They're dependent on a wall outlet, and most allow you to precisely adjust the temperature -- an important factor to the vaping equation (more on that later). Some models use a "whip," a hose-like mouthpiece, or "balloon," a bag that fills with vapor which you then inhale from -- like a Volcano.

Portable vaporizer

If a desktop vape is like a desktop PC, portable vaporizers are like laptops. Many are essentially e-cigarettes that are modified to vaporize marijuana instead of e-juice (eww). Portable vapes (which are battery-operated) can be slim and sleek like a fancy pen or as  big and bulky as a walkie talkie or water bottle.

How is vaping different from smoking?

Cleaning a bong, scraping resin out of a pipe, or vacuuming ashes is disgusting. With vaporizers, clean-up is minimal and usually limited to the tank/chamber and mouthpiece. However, with oil pens that can get a little messy, too. (More on that in a bit as well.)

Portable vapes are also a hell of a lot more discreet to use and carry around. The vapor they emit often isn't as smelly or visible in comparison to the smoke from a joint or pipe. Storage and travel also tends to be easy, thanks to compact designs. And you never have to worry about finding, forgetting or losing your lighter.

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Vape pens vary in design and function.

Aaron Robinson/CNET

Does it smell?

The vapor from a vaporizer typically doesn't smell, but that doesn't mean that the vaporizer itself won't reek of weed. Marijuana has a very, um, aromatic scent. (There's a reason it's called skunk.) The stench is unavoidable when smoking -- no matter how many dryer sheets you stuff into a cardboard tube -- but not when vaping. You'd maybe catch a whiff of weed if someone right next to you was vaping, or if someone near you has a vape with the heat setting on too high, but it's generally not something with an obvious smell.

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Vape Nation, stand up!

Aaron Robinson/CNET

What kind of vape pens are there?

A vape pen is a popular style of portable vaporizer that is totally having a moment right now. Most require frequent charging, unless it's of the disposable variety, and some, like the Pax 3 or Firefly 2, can vaporize both concentrates (oils and waxes) and flowers -- though their larger dimensions stretch the definition of "vape pen."

Cartridge pens

  • Streamlined, low-maintenance and affordable.
  • Compatible with universal cartridges prefilled with hash oil.
  • Cartridges are made of plastic, metal or glass and can be disposed when empty.
  • The battery simply screws onto a cartridge for pen-like design.

Concentrate pens

  • Functions and designs similar to cartridge pens, except you fill the tank/chamber with extracts.
  • If the concentrate is too thick, you have to buy "juice" (eww) to thin it out.
  • More removable parts than cartridge pens.
  • Atomizer coils commonly clog or break down.

Herb vaporizers 

  • Can only vaporize dry flower.
  • Larger than the pen-style vapes.
  • Tend to be more expensive.

How do they work?

The main components of a vape pen are a battery, a power button, an atomizer, a tank (also referred to as a chamber), and a mouthpiece -- just like an e-cigarette.

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How a simple vape pen works

Aaron Robinson/CNET

When activated (usually by pressing a button or inhaling or both at the same time), the battery heats up the atomizer component, which in turn heats up the flower or concentrates inside of the tank to a high enough temp for vaporization to occur -- but not high enough for it to combust.

Temperature is an important factor. Heat affects the harshness of what you inhale; the lower the heat, the less the vapor, and vice versa. This is a weak spot for portable vapes. Some high-end models allow you to control the exact temp, but most only offer a handful of heat settings to choose from, if that.

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Vape pens that use pre-filled cartridges are popular due to ease of use. 

Aaron Robinson/CNET

Is it legal?

Medical marijuana in Australia recently became legal, however recreational use is still banned. For more information, visit Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP).

What are the health concerns?

Any substance that changes your body chemistry should be considered carefully. Cannabis isn't new, but the many ways of consuming it  -- including vaporizing -- are. We don't yet know about its long- and short-term effects. 

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If a desktop vape looks intimidating, try a vape pen instead.

Aaron Robinson/CNET

There isn't a lot of research either way that suggests vaping is definitively better than smoking, especially since cannabis (extracts, flowers and devices) is an unregulated industry. Until more research is done and regulation can back the claims of unregulated cannabis, the health concerns remain unclear. 

With federal legalization of marijuana still far in the future for the US, here's hoping that critical information about the health effects of weed vapes, positive or negative, is available before they reach the mainstream saturation of fidget spinners.